Moss Rock Review – January 2012

Where is Storytelling headed?

With the sale of perhaps 12 million tablets during December alone (guestimating 3 million Amazon Kindle Fire, 6 million Apple iPad, and 3 million combined for Nook Tablet, Kobo Vox and other Android tablets), the purchasing power of owners of these devices is throwing the book industry into a tizzy. People who own tablets are showing an overwhelming preference for buying and reading ebooks and apps, rather than buying printed “dead tree” editions. Sales of ebooks are now surpassing those for either of hardcover and paperback editions, and in some genres ebooks are outselling both paper editions combined. Purchasing is steadily shifting from neighbourhood stores to online outlets, such as Apple’s iBookstore and Amazon’s Kindle store. Publishers, editors, illustrators, designers, agents and authors are scrambling to adapt.

The ebook market is already splitting into two streams: basic ebooks and apps. Basic ebooks are typically created in ePub format (not unlike .html or .rtf or .txt formats), and are essentially a stream of text that can be read on a smart phone, iPod or first-generation eReader, such as the Kindle. By comparison, apps for iPhone and tablets can be all-singing, all-dancing elaborate productions, with narration, animation, videos, interaction and a mini-library of background material. As the tablet-owning audience grows, the pressure is increasing on publishers to create these expensive and technically complex app editions.

Our Agio Publishing House had the wonderful opportunity to create Canada’s first enhanced (also called amplified) ebook app for iPad, which was released in December. It is called “Cool to be Clever: the story of Edson C. Hendricks, the genius who invented the design for the Internet.” That experience drove home to me many differences between producing an iPad app and our usual work in producing printed editions.

CONTENT: for a printed book, an editor is generally culling out extraneous material and honing the words to tightly guide the reader through a linear reading experience. For an app, background material and related features are not only possible, they are expected, so the editor/producer/director is curating a multi-media, multi-path experience.

DESIGN and FORMAT: the design of the printed book is an art form refined over centuries. Generally there were only two editions, hardcover and paperback, which are substantially similar to produce. However, to create an app, new (to most publishing houses) concepts and skills are in play: digital video and audio, animation, games, interaction, social media linkages… Plus there can be multiple versions to suit all the sizes of screens and orientations for iPhone through to iPad, and systems from Apple’s iOS to various flavours of Android OS.

AUTHOR’S ROLE: traditionally the author’s skill was to stir the reader’s imagination through choice of words in a line-by-line, page-by-page sequence. An enhanced ebook app still requires the foundation of a strong narrative story, but also needs scriptwriting and illustration and direction/choreography of all the diverse elements. The “reader” is encouraged to be actively involved. In many ways, app-creation goes even beyond producing a stage play or film.

DOING IT YOURSELF: over the past two decades, with the introduction of personal computers, word processors, low-cost graphics programs, print on demand (POD) and internet distribution, indie authors and small publishing houses have been increasingly equipped to participate in the book and basic ebook marketplace. Low-cost and simple-to-use tools for self-publishing an enhanced app are just beginning to appear (Apple’s iBooks Author is a prime example), but a creator does need to master (or gather collaborators for) the many disciplines required, such as filming and producing videos, recording and editing audio, directing, etc.

LONGEVITY: printed books that are centuries old can still be easily read. Books printed today will still be usable for centuries to come. Sadly, today’s ebooks and apps, because of the steady changes in computer formats, will likely not be functional even 5 years from now (like those 8-track music cassettes in your attic).

REVENUES and ROYALTIES: publishers of printed books are lucky to net 30% of the retail price after paying for printing, and pass on about one-fifth of that to the author. By contrast, for ebook and app sales, the publisher gets a whooping 70% of the retail price. Literary agents are working to see authors receive about half of that.

In case anyone has doubts about the “masses” affording tablets, the retail price of some of these devices has already dropped below $200 and prices could drop significantly during 2012. As the prices tumble, more people will buy them (in many cases abandoning their PCs), and the pressure on publishers will increase to have multiple editions of books/ebooks/apps to serve this demanding marketplace.

In India, their government is distributing to poor school children millions of tablets, each costing only $35 (yes, thirty-five dollars!) to produce. By providing free online access to a full kindergarten-to-grade-12 curriculum of school courses, India is hoping a whole generation of children from the slums can essentially home-school/ distance-educate themselves into higher education.

A decade from now India’s investment in its children’s education will create a huge market for Victoria authors’ creativity. So keep on writing! And let your imagination run wild about what the final product(s) could look like and encompass.

(c) copyright 2012, Bruce Batchelor

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